Despite it being the 21st century in which we live; mental health is still a controversial subject, and right up there with some of the most taboo conditions, sits Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD.
OCD, like so many other mental health conditions, is still widely misunderstood. In the media, OCD is often depicted as a cute, quirky, personality trait, considered adorable and endearing, however the truth is, this simplistic view is as far from the reality of this condition, as it can get.
In the early 1990’s the globe embraced the ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’ culture, a US comedy sitcom about a functional group of friends who were all successful, with well-paid and or exciting professions. The characters depicted almost perfect lives; three beautiful women and three very attractive, funny, cute guys, that even on their worst day were all immaculately presented. Many fans identified with at least one of the characters and could be found mimicking elements of their personalities; such as fashion, Rachel’s hair, Chandler’s jokes and memorable lines from notable episodes. Each character had a different yet significant personality with its own dynamic, but for me, it was Monica Gellar character that stood out the most.
Monica, portrayed by Courteney Cox, was shown to have an obsessive personality. Monica had to be the best at anything she put her mind to. She had a controlling and compulsive personality, obsessed with neatness, cleanliness and militant order, yet despite this, Monica had a happy, stress-free life and was never seemingly destressed or held back by her condition. Monica referred to this as ‘a cute little obsessive thing’ in the episode, ‘the one with the chicken pox’.
It appeared that some fans were quite taken by this ‘quirkiness’ and began to almost adopt this behaviour for themselves. I myself witnessed this first-hand in a friend of mine. To me, who really did have OCD, I found this absurd, the idea that people were happy to adopt the characteristics of a mental illness and one that was so debilitating and exhausting to boot.
This serves as a glittering example of how little is understood about the illness and how it is almost always stereotyped as an minor inconvenience with no lasting effect. So what is the reality of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how does it affect those with it?
Well, here’s my truth about OCD.
When I found out I was pregnant in April of 2004, I was ecstatic, but nervous.I didn’t see it at the time, but looking back, the subtleties of my OCD were creeping in and building momentum from the get-go.
My neurosis was instantaneous. At the time I rationalised it as ‘protective mother-to-be’ behaviour, however it was so much more. Firstly I stopped taking my Citalopram; I had become convinced that it could have some kind Thalidomide effect on my unborn foetus, I can’t even say why, but it never occurred to me to go and see my doctor, not only was it unsafe to stop my meds and effectively go ‘cold turkey’, but I could have been put on a pregnancy safe antidepressant. I do remember assuming there wasn’t an alternative and thinking that If my doctor knew I was no longer taking my meds, then I’ll be deemed an unfit mother and take my baby away.
I felt like I was on top of things, but I became obsessive about what I ate and drank, every day the same; two litres of water, one pint of full-fat milk, one Pregnacare tablet, one apple, banana, orange and five different vegetables. I was very sensible and very healthy (physically) but also very militant and obsessive.
I became obsessed about contracting something contagious that I might pass to my baby. I stopped going out for anything other than the necessities, appointments, exercise, visit my parents and shopping. After buying groceries, I would use a Dettol wipe on the food packaging, even bananas and orange skin!
I gave birth to my baby girl at thirty-six weeks and five days by caesarean section. I was happy, but soon my anxiety crept up. During our stay on the ward, I’d feel so hot I wouldn’t dress her in anything but a nappy and vest.
I didn’t sleep for the first three days due to a constant flow of visitors. On the third night, I was cuddling her in attempt to stop her crying, when the next thing, I was waking up, with no baby on me. I shot up panicking and there she was, fast asleep in her fish tank like hospital cot. I felt relief, but only for a second. A health care assistant (HCA) approached me and explained that I’d nodded off, so they removed baby from my chest for safety. The HCA was very friendly and smiling as she said it, but sheer panic engulfed me, I was disgusted with myself. I had put my baby in danger, what kind of mother was I? ‘Did she fall off’? I asked, clearly panicking and close to crying and screaming out loud. ‘No, not at all’, the HCA replied. I didn’t believe her. ‘Are you sure? Please tell me the truth.’
The HCA responded whilst still smiling, ‘Of course. we would tell you if she had. Get some sleep.’
I didn’t believe her, I was in turmoil. I jumped out of bed to check baby for bumps, bruises, indentations and although I found nothing, I still wasn’t convinced. All I could think about was her falling to the floor, I wanted to scream for help, in my mind she was laying there dying and the HCA was lying.
The next day I told my husband what had happened and he wasn’t concerned either, he told me baby was fine, and this seemed to calm me down.
Later I was stood with her looking out of the window, when suddenly I thought, what would happen if I dropped her from this window? She would die, oh my god why would I be thinking this? What if I want her to die? What if I threw her from the window on purpose? It was like one bomb exploding after another. I was just panic stricken, I put her back in her fish tank and wheeled her to the other side of my bed, away from the window.
Once home, I had managed to calm down a little, having my husband help out reduced the contact I had to have with her. I was terrified I was going to hurt her, I couldn’t carry her upstairs without having a panic attack; there was a window at the top of the stairs and I kept thinking what if I dropped her out of it. I would spend hours staring out of that window to see if I could spot her body lying on the garden patio below, even though I could hear her downstairs with my husband. I doubted my ears, eyes and mind. I began to avoid picking her up, I could get away with it whilst my husband was on paternity leave.
The first time I made up bottles of formula, I was scooping the powder into the bottles, when suddenly I turned and broke a glass, no sooner had I looked at the shards of glass, when I suddenly thought what if I put broken glass in my daughters milk, or bleach or washing-up liquid. I stopped what I was doing and asked my husband to remake the bottles from scratch. My husband asked why, so I told him the truth about what was going through my head. He knew I suffered from OCD, but this was much worse than he’d ever seen before.
The situation went from bad to worse, every time I made milk, I imagined that I was putting something horrible in the bottles, even though the idea repulsed me and I had no recollection of doing it.
As soon as I had an intrusive thought of harming my daughter, I believed I’d done it. I couldn’t hold her anymore, I couldn’t make milk, but to make matters worse, I now believed I was contaminating the powdered milk tub when my husband wasn’t looking, so eventually he had to lock it away and hide the key, it was the only way I knew I wasn’t doing it.
I started thinking, what if it was an injury that didn’t always display marks. Babies can be shaken and it isn’t always obvious until they become unconscious. Immediately after allowing that thought into my mind I thought, what if I’ve shook her, what if she’s dying now from a bleed on the brain. What if I’ve punched her, what if I’m hurting my own baby and can’t remember, or my brain is making me forget.
Each and every thought was abhorrent to me, it was like mental torture, like a demon in my mind. Every time I rid one hideous thought, within hours another would be there. I hated myself.
I wanted to be like a normal mother, I wanted to spend hours cuddling my baby, I wanted to love her and be with her, but I was convinced I’d either injure, poison or kill her. I just couldn’t understand why I was having these thoughts. I loved her so much. I’d tell myself that I wouldn’t hurt her, but I was so convinced there was a part of my brain that would do it and make me forget.
Within three months, I’d reached my limit, I couldn’t take anymore. I went to the kitchen to get a knife, with the firm intention of cutting my own hands off, that way I’d know that I hadn’t done any of these things.
With blade to wrist, I started to carve, as soon as it bled, I started crying, dropped the knife, picked up my daughter and drove to the doctors. I walked in crying, begging to see the doctor. I was utterly convinced that they would take my daughter off me, I sat in the waiting room crying and hugging her telling her how much I loved her and that I was sorry for being such a bad mother.
Through floods of tears, I told my doctor everything, she sat and listened intently, examined my daughter and confirmed that she was perfectly fine. Next she told me I had Post-natal Psychosis and put me back on medication. It was like having an asteroid lifted from me! In time, I began weekly cognitive behavioural therapy sessions.
The therapy was fantastic,it taught me to deal with the intrusive thoughts and how to see them for what they were.It was a slow recovery, but it was still a recovery, over time I became able to do the things with my daughter that I’d always wanted to do, and most importantly I could be her mother and not a stranger that avoided her at all costs.
I still feel so guilty about the time I lost with my daughter during that first year of her life, but my daughter is eleven now and we are so close, we are best friends. I’m open with her about my OCD and she completely understands my illness, every day I feel blessed that she is my daughter.
This was one of the worst experiences of OCD for me, I felt desperate, but there is help out there. I urge anybody who is experiencing anything like this, to seek help from their doctor; there are medications and therapies that really help. Don’t be afraid to ask for that help, there is so much to gain – I did, and although I will always suffer from OCD, that help gave me the most important gift of all, the ability to love my daughter and be the mother I dreamt I’d be.
So whilst the stereotyped, stress-free portrayal of Monica Geller annoys me, I can forgive it, as I don’t think the ‘The one where Monica thinks she’s hurting Ben’, would have made for such light-hearted comedy!
Nicola is a 36 year old student Nurse, with a long history of OCD, diagnosed with CFS and Fibromyalgia. She is dedicated to removing the stereotype and stigma of OCD, in her own words "OCD is a deeply distressing illness that has major effects on the body, sufferers require support to be open and seek the help they so desperately need without detriment or discrimination". Read more from Nicola on her blog here